A whole carriage on the train from Paris to Bayonne is packed with foreigners bearing rucksacks, sticks, and scallop shells, and dozens of us disembarked at Bayonne to wait for our bus. “Buen Camino,” says a dark-haired girl to me, adding, “well, it’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it?”
At the pilgrim office in St Jean Pied de Port, I get talking to Tony, an Australian whose son had been in Catholic Voices and is about to start as a Dominican novice; we click immediately and stay overnight in the same hostel, where the host oddly insists that we’re not pilgrims yet and gives plenty of sensible advice about hydration and the how tight our boots should be. After a wonderfully friendly dinner with a group of French pilgrims, I head to bed at ten, there to lie awake for hours among the snores.
Day 1 - St Jean Pied de Port to Roncevalles
Several friends had told me the first day of the Camino is brutal, but I hadn’t expected anything like this. Tony and I set out early, buying some food at a nearby stop and before long we met someone from the same Manchester estate as my cousins; the three of us carried on together, but as the road got steeper and the rains began to drive, we separated out. Eventually, somehow, I collapsed into the small auberge and bar at Orisson two hours later, less than a third of the way along.
Inside was chaos, a Tetris-like mass of bodies, bags, hats, coats, and sticks, rain dripping everywhere; through fogged glasses I spotted Tony signalling from where he was stooped over coffee with Leah, a German girl who had breakfasted with us. Suitably warmed, we set out again, Tony moving ahead and Leah and I finding we’d roughly the same pace.
It was as well we did, because we needed to help each other with our rainwear and water supply, and though the uphill slope was never again as rough as it had been to Orisson, the weather made up for it with fog, thunder, lightning, wind, heavy rains, hail, and even snow. Our heads down, we battled on with four people returning past us, a French man muttering that this was no day for a promenade and an American lady fearing she had hypothermia, but then I realised that the gaps between lightning and thunder were increasing. The storm was moving off.
Leah laughed, and pointed, crying “Blue sky!”, and sure enough, the tiny azure patch she spotted soon expanded, so for about three hours we had comfortable walking conditions, mud halfway up our shins notwithstanding. We separated then for the last patch, just before the second storm of the day, and as she went on ahead, I met David and Christa, an American couple, the three of us carefully picking out way down the muddy, slippery, winding slopes to the monastery at Roncesvalles.
I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a shower as much as I did mine there, or seen a face light up with joy so much as Leah’s did over her first spoonful of soup. After the pilgrim Mass, Tony and I sat chatting before heading to our dorms, where I talked a while with Larissa, the German girl bunking next to me, before the lights went out.
Day 2 - Roncevalles to Zubiri
This had been the day I’d feared most, thinking I’d be exhausted after the first long hike, but it proved steady enough. We set out without breakfast through the ‘Witches’ Wood’, bought food in the next village, and ate it when we bought coffee another couple of kilometres later. Unfortunately, we lost Larissa soon after, as she comfortably outpaced the rest of us, but that’s the way of the Camino. She’s probably in Santiago now, given the speed at which she strode.
Today’s hike seemed mainly about adjustments - finding our rhythms, working out where we were hurting and why, and tinkering with our backpacks. The last stretch, though, coming into Zubiri, where we were planning on eating before going on a further five kilometres, was as lethally slippery as the approach to Roncevalles the previous day, such that it was a blessing that it didn’t rain till we were tucking into our sandwiches in the company of David and Christa. “We seem to keep meeting on downward bits,” Christa pointed out.
Given the rain and our tiredness, going on wasn’t a real option, so we found a nearby hostel and settled in, a spectacularly international group talking a marvellous Pre-Babel Eurovision hybrid language, mashing together English, Spanish, Italian, and German, depending on who was talking. After Mass in the little local church, eight of the ten from our dorm ate dinner together, accompanied by an American couple that had miscalculated disastrously when crossing the Pyrenees, and had stayed out overnight on the slopes leading to Roncesvalles. I’m still not sure how they survived.
Day 3 - Zubiri to Pamplona
Looking out into the morning rain, Tony reckoned it might not last. “At least there’s one optimist in the group,” laughed David. “An optimist here being someone who says the clouds are half empty rather than half full,” I ventured, before getting up.
It rained almost all day, but with the route mostly level we stayed as a fairly cohesive group until we reached the outskirts of Pamplona, when the hard asphalt took a toll, such that we spread out and divided into two groups, the larger one staying in the main hostel in town, and a handful of us in a small German-run one.
After exploring the town, a few of us regrouped for dinner, an emotional event with Tony heading off in the morning, keeping to his original plan of making it to Pamplona and then heading north to the so-called ‘Primitive Route’. At two minutes to ten, Leah spotted the time and remembered that we had a curfew, so we had to bolt back to the hotel and knock ten minutes late. It was all very embarrassing, and saw me scolded and chased upstairs to bed for the first time in my adult life.
Day 4 - Pamplona to Puente la Reine
Wagnerian snoring was the order of the night, and when I got up to the tune of Taizé chants played at increasing volume, I did so with heavy limbs and eyelids. “Gregory,” said Doris, one of the owners, wagging her finger at me, “I hope this will not happen again,” but she seemed this time to realise there had been an honest mistake. Ernst, her husband, smiled indulgently.
Onward then Leah and I went, slowly plodding along like hobbits lost without Gandalf, clearly missing Tony’s pace. Still, we bought food and, opening up to each other, trudged across the fields and gently uphill, meeting David, Christa, and a few of the others at a village where they’d grabbed an early lunch. We stopped too, hoping to catch them later, and then carried on up the Mount of Forgiveness, gradually finding the confidence to put away our rainwear, switch to t-shirts, and even in my case peg my damp laundry onto my bag.
The climb to the ridge, marked with bronze silhouettes and white windmills, was nowhere near as severe as we’d expected, and even the long march down proved less a scramble than I’d feared. As I’d realised the other day, uphill climbs may break your spirit, but the downhill scrambles break your bones.
Onward then as the day dragged on through three siesta-emptied villages, each with a beautiful Romanesque church, until eventually we made it to Puente la Reine, where we met Carlos from Barcelona in the street and followed his advice to take a proper look at the city’s beautiful medieval bridge before trudging over it heedlessly he next morning.
Afterwards, James from England pointed out that our life as pilgrims seems to be curiously detached from Spanish reality, and I couldn’t help but reply that we go to bed just as the typical Spaniard is tucking into his dinner.
Day 5 - Puente la Reine to Estella
As near to a perfect day as we’ve had so far, Leah and I set out early with James and his wife Alicia, strolling over the bridge and catching up with David and Christa on the subsequent slow climb. One hill town saw us meeting a batch of Irish pilgrims, getting a taste of the Camino with a tour company, and as the day got hotter we ached Lorca, where we sat in the street with a dozen or so other pilgrims, resting over tortillas and a small beer or two. Onward then in the heat to arrive for the first time without being exhausted and to spend the afternoon exploring and relaxing. We’re starting to get space to appreciate what’s around us.
Day 6 - Estella to Los Arcos
The shortest and theoretically easiest walk thus far has ended up the most gruelling as incessant rain sapped our spirits and rain filled our boots. We plodded on in our own heads, feeling our own pains, taking our own steps, and for some of us saying our own prayers. Normally it’s the uphill stretches that allow most space for that, but today, strung out and dragging ourselves along, the Camino is more solitary than it has been. The solitude seems almost ironic, given how today’s been a day with poncho-and-rucksack-clad pilgrims constantly in sight, a straggling dotted line of technicolor hunchbacks.
Still, sodden, blistered, and exhausted, I reached Los Arcos at two, checking in with Danish Ann to an Austrian hostel. The cold clearly in my bones, a shower and fresh clothes evidently didn’t help my demeanour much, as while I was having dinner this afternoon a waitress came over and gave me a blanket.
Tomorrow should be the longest day so far. It’s also my birthday. We’ll see how that goes.
Part II continues soon.
Greg Daly travelled with Camino Ways www.caminoways.com. Tel: 353 (0)1-525-28-86.